Lewis MacAdams takes Off-Ramp's John Rabe on a tour of the L.A. River as MacAdams nears his 70th birthday and a huge celebration of his accomplishments as founder of FoLAR, Friends of the Los Angeles River. MacAdams "wanted to crawl under a rock," but instead agreed to a huge fundraiser party on October 12 -- the FoLAR Fandango -- IF they agreed to bring in Texas BBQ and Shiner Bock from his West Texas homeland.
In the 1970s, when Lewis MacAdams came to Los Angeles, the L.A. River was a flood control channel and a punchline. But he founded “Friends of the Los Angeles River,” which helped the river make a Hollywood-worthy comeback. Now, as MacAdams turns 70, we tour the river and see how far we’ve come.
The poet and journalist remembers his first encounter with the river over thirty years ago, and the immediate connection he felt to it.
“I was walking to the bus stop and I saw the L.A. River for the first time, and for some reason that I’ve never really known, I had this realization that I was going to be involved with the L.A. River for the rest of my life,” says MacAdams. “I see trains going by, I see the 5 freeway, I see slimy – no water almost – but just slimy, street runoff slobber. The insight I think I had was that it was the darkest period and it was bound to change, and I started to ride that change.”
Soon after, MacAdams and a friend "asked the river if [they] could speak for it in the human realm and it didn't say no." That was enough of an answer for MacAdams. He founded FoLAR and began what he calls a “40 year art work” to bring the river back to life.
MacAdams’ first meeting with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works – scheduled shortly after he stood in the path of a bulldozer clearing trees in the river – quickly turned into a yelling match.
“This guy from Public Works would refer to the river as a 'flood control channel’ and every time I would interrupt him and say ‘river.’ And it didn’t take long until the two of us were screaming at each other,” says MacAdams. “I knew that it was a seminal argument.”
Since then, FoLAR has spent nearly three decades tirelessly cleaning the river and advocating for its restoration.
(MacAdams and KPCC's Brian Watt clean up the river. John Rabe)
But MacAdams says that it never felt like work to him.
“I’ve always thought of it as being fun, and also as being a certain kind of joke on ourselves that we have to build ourselves a better river, but we do,” says MacAdams. “This is a post-modern river… where humans have to work with nature, not against nature. And L.A. River is kind of the poster child globally for screwed up rivers. I would also say it’s the poster child for restoring rivers too.”
One of the biggest challenges MacAdams and FoLAR have faced is getting Angelenos to think about the L.A. River as an actual river and not just a slab of concrete. With the U.S. Army Corps' recent endorsement of a $1 billion river restoration project, it seems like Los Angeles is finally listening.
“I think that if we’ve accomplished anything these past 30 years, one of them is that we’ve created this new mind that sees the river as a river and not as flood control,” says MacAdams. “Now as you can see, people moving with strollers, people walking their dogs, the river has reentered people’s consciousness and they didn’t even realize it.”